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Research Questions

  1. What does the historical record reveal about national recovery from long-term national decline?
  2. What factors distinguish cases of successful anticipatory renewal from those that fail?
  3. Is the United States entering a period of decline, and does it meet the preconditions for anticipatory renewal?

History is full of great powers that hit a peak of competitive power and then stagnate and eventually decline. There are fewer cases of great powers that have confronted such headwinds and managed to generate a repeated upward trajectory—to renew their power and standing in both absolute and relative terms. Arguably, that is precisely the challenge that faces the United States. Its competitive position is threatened both from within (in terms of slowing productivity growth, an aging population, a polarized political system, and an increasingly corrupted information environment) and outside (in terms of a rising direct challenge from China and declining deference to U.S. power from dozens of developing nations). Left unchecked, these trends will threaten domestic and international sources of competitive standing, thus accelerating the relative decline in U.S. standing.

In this report, the authors shed light on this challenge by examining the problem of national decline and renewal. It is part of a larger study on the societal determinants of a nation's competitive position, which has nominated several key qualities that determine a society's competitive success and failure. The findings of the first phase of the study suggest that it is very difficult for countries to achieve multiple periods of efflorescence or national peak dynamism. This report is one of several independent second-phase analyses on distinct topics that examine the prospects for the United States to do so, combining historical case analysis with contemporary assessments.

Key Findings

  • "Recovery from significant long-term national decline is rare and difficult to detect in the historical record." When great powers have slid from a position of preeminence because of domestic factors, they have seldom reversed this trend.
  • "The United States may be entering a period requiring the kind of anticipatory national renewal found in several historical cases." In a few cases, societies identified challenges to their competitive position and undertook broad-based social, political, and economic reforms to sustain their power. However, they had not yet declined significantly (if at all) when these processes began.
  • "Several common factors appear to distinguish cases of successful anticipatory renewal from failures." There are seven major societal characteristics associated with competitive success.
  • "The United States is not yet demonstrating widespread shared recognition of societal challenges or determination to reform in key issue areas." There is no emerging consensus on the barriers to renewal that demand urgent action, and the essential problem is seen in starkly different terms by different segments of society and groups of political leaders, which creates a distinct challenge for the multiple efforts.
  • "The United States has all the preconditions for a potential agenda of anticipatory renewal." It has tremendous residual strengths and a proven capacity for resilience and renewal. It has the scale and industrial and scientific foundations and a rich reservoir of social actors to remain one of the great powers at the apex of world politics.

This research was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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